There's an article in the Washington Post today about soldiers returning from Iraq and what they have felt and experienced. It tells of the disconnect of most Americans from the war in Iraq and of how the returnees feel different. "You can't understand unless you were there". There is an almost surreal feeling for many of them; it's as if nothing has changed here at home, but they are so different inside. Adjustment can come slowly.
You can't understand unless you were there. That's as true a statement now as it has always been for the veterans returning from war. If you weren't there, there is no common ground to discuss the war. No context, as it were. There is a phrase that pops up from time to time during the wars America has fought that came into common usage during the Civil War. Seeing the elephant or going to see the elephant or having seen the elephant. Although the phrase appears to date from the 1830's, a lot of combat veterans from the Civil War used it to describe going into battle. "Today, we will see the elephant". Many more have used it in the years since.
No, unless you have seen the elephant, the best you can do is try your best to empathize, try your best to understand what you can, but you can never have that common vocabulary that soldiers who have seen the elephant share. There is a camaraderie that we who have not been there can never share. All we can do is help support the people who are returning. All we can do is let them know we care about them and respect what they have done for us. All we can do is honor the people who serve and protect all we hold dear.
All we can do is realize they have seen the elephant for all of us, and we must stand by them. By their sacrifice and service, they have kept us from having to see the elephant ourselves.
Please read the whole article, it is very well written.